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Going to University… to do, or not to do

I graduated high school in 2020, during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. The ratio of  the number of times the word “unprecedented” has been heard to every other word in the  English language is much higher for my generation than any previous generation. I actually  have a recurring nightmare in which I am trapped in a dimly lit room with a greenish tinge and  am forced to hear the word “unprecedented” play on repeat over and over and over… 

I entered university immediately after high school and my entire first year and about a quarter  of my second year has been completely online and off campus. Suffice it to say I have missed  out on a lot. Prom, commencement, first-year parties, living in a dorm, the list goes on. Those are just things I know I missed out on. Sometimes I overhear upper years talking about their first-year experience and it makes me realize how much I missed out on that I’m not even aware I missed out on. Even now, three quarters of the way through my second year of  university, my university friend group besides a couple close friends is not very well-defined, and I can’t match names to the majority of the faces I see in my classes. I think a large reason for this is that I chose to stay home in first year rather than living in residence, so I didn’t meet anyone in person until my second year when everyone had already moved out of their dorms. I think it’s also partially because I’ve found it kind of difficult to find people I relate to, but more on that later. 

Due to the pandemic, a higher number of students than usual in my graduation year chose to take gap years or avoided going to university at all. The value of university and the effect of online school on it has been called into question time and time again, both by myself and by many of my peers. It’s unsurprisingly a very popular conversation starter amongst students. However, even now that the pandemic has died down, college and university enrolment rates have continued to substantially decrease and dropout rates have skyrocketed. Interestingly, a disproportionate amount of this decline in enrolment (around 70%) has been due to men, but that’s a discussion for another day. I would argue that even before the pandemic, there was a growing sentiment amongst young people that perhaps university is no longer worth the tuition. I’ve thought a lot about the topic and in this post, I’ll aim to share some of my main thoughts and takeaways. My objective is to help any current or prospective university students  reframe the way they think about university and reflect on whether it’s the right path for them. Almost everything is my opinion, and though I will try to remain impartial, I’ll admit my opinion is quite biased, so take everything with a grain of salt. Also, I’ve never technically dropped out of university or taken a gap year so anything I discuss in regard to that is largely based on my  interpretation of the lived experiences of my friends.  

I think the most obvious place to start when thinking about this is to determine what the point of university is. Originally, universities were created for a select group of individuals who were  considered intellectuals, and the idea was to encourage scientific and philosophical progress much in accordance with Aristotle’s ideas about these topics. There was also a heavy focus on  religion and most early universities were tied to a church. It wasn’t until the 19th century that universities became more independent and expanded their curriculum to relate more to the  general public in addition to just intellectuals and scholars. This was largely influenced by the industrial revolution and the consequential need for more educated and technically skilled  people in the workforce. That has since led to today’s universities becoming essentially just a mandatory pre-cursor to landing a spot in the middle-class. Without a degree, you’re unlikely to  find more than a low-skilled labour job.  

Or at least, that’s perhaps how it used to be. But times are changing very, very rapidly, and I would argue that the above is no longer necessarily true. Some of the wealthiest and most successful people in the world hold nothing more than a high school diploma, and many of my smartest friends aren’t currently attending college or university. There are many reasons for this, but I think the most significant is the increased accessibility of entrepreneurship. In 2021, 5.4 million business applications were filed, representing a 53% increase from 2019.  Additionally, the number of youth-led businesses increased by 800% from 2009 to 2019. More and more people are becoming entrepreneurs, and a rising proportion of them are young  people. Many of these new start-ups are based around tech, and the biggest and most  successful companies in the world are mainly tech companies. Because of this, more and more  funding is becoming available for start-ups. This is especially true for tech start-ups, because there is a huge tech bubble and an insane amount of tech optimism in the start-up ecosystem.  So, it’s no wonder so many more people are choosing the entrepreneurship route. 

Another thing I want to touch on is the influence of social media. It has very quickly and very effectively de-mystified the entire process of starting a business by democratizing the necessary  information and giving entrepreneurs a platform to help other entrepreneurs. You no longer need a business degree to start a successful business. In fact, having a business degree says  nothing about how likely you are to start a successful business. As such, right now is the easiest  time in history to start a business. It’s still relatively difficult to start a successful one, but simply  starting one is a huge step in the process. This is another reason why youth in particular are  especially entrepreneurial – we have grown up with access to social media and in general are  really good at using it to create an audience and a professional network. We’ve been  developing our personal brand since we were 12, which is a huge component of starting a  successful business. It’s not so much what you know, it’s who you know and who knows you.  

Now, going back to the original question. What is the point of going to university in today’s world? Yes, the main purpose of these institutions is to create a strong and well-educated working class because that is beneficial to society. If you play the university game well, you can land yourself a comfortable and high-paying job that will set you up nicely to support a nuclear  family and lead you into a peaceful retirement after a successful and hopefully fulfilling career.  That’s the conventional path to success, and there’s nothing wrong with it. However, by taking the conventional path you automatically put a limit to your success. Unconventional success requires an unconventional path, and I will touch more on this later. But besides setting yourself up for conventional success there’s many other reasons to go to university. A huge one is the social aspect. Many people meet lifelong friends in university that double as valuable  connections in their professional network. Some meet their future spouse. Another big reason to go is for the credentials. A university degree might just be a piece of paper, but it’s undeniable that it demonstrates you possess at least some level of competence. And unless you’ve gotten some other form of recognition or have achieved something exceptional, without a degree you will face more scrutiny – people won’t take you as seriously.  

Besides building skills, one other huge reason to go to university is to capitalize on all the resources they have available. Most 4-year universities have been around a long time, so they’ve inevitably amassed a lot of resources like funding, tools and facilities, smart people, academic literature, etc. that they provide for their students. Though universities are quite bureaucratic by nature, they are making an effort to stay up to date with the rapidly changing trends and innovations that are popping up every day. Especially when it comes to entrepreneurship. There are many start-up incubators and accelerators and competitions hosted and funded by universities now. At the end of the day, universities operate as businesses and students are their customers, so it’s in their best interest to provide students with as much support as possible. A successful start-up coming out of a university generates publicity for the university and more funding, so it’s a win-win situation. The same goes for successful research papers, events, or virtually anything else. Universities are extremely  motivated and incentivized to support their students with whatever passion projects or side gigs they might be working on and having the support of a powerful institution like a university  is incredibly valuable and shouldn’t be underestimated. It also makes the process of building these projects a lot less lonely. Plus, when you work on side projects while still in university, you have a lot more freedom to take risks because if the project fails, you’re still just a student and have that to fall back on, so it takes away a lot of the pressure. 

Evidently, there’s lots of good reasons to go to university. But for some people, there’s also lots of reasons why university isn’t the best path to take. Take entrepreneurs for example. Yes, building a business while still being in university has its perks, but also some major drawbacks. For starters, you’re spending thousands of dollars on tuition which could instead be invested in  your business. Additionally, many student entrepreneurs find that their coursework is very unrelated to their business, and as such completing their courses ends up being nothing but a distraction from making progress on building their company. Realistically, most people will probably never use 90% of what they learn in their university courses, even if they take the conventional path to the work force. The truth is that taking a course just isn’t the same as learning by experience, and today’s employers know that. Simply having a degree isn’t enough to get a good job anymore – you also need at least a couple internships to go along with. In  fact, work experience is probably more important than getting a degree. Most employers would hire someone without a degree who has had multiple valuable internships or work experiences or successful projects over a college grad who has none. And the level of difficulty to get hired  for roles gets exponentially lower as you gain more work experience. Granted, being a student  makes it a lot easier to land that first experience, but it’s by no means impossible. I’ve found that if you aren’t as technically strong in a certain area, you can more than make up for it by showing persistence, passion, curiosity, and a strong willingness to learn on any job application. So, if you can land that first position, it may make more sense to directly enter the workforce.  The downside to that of course is that you are immediately bombarded with all the fun responsibilities of being an adult, but some wouldn’t consider that to be a downside. It all  depends on the person and their priorities.  

Something I did want to touch on again was the social/community aspect of university. For many people, that is the main reason they choose to attend university – to meet other like minded and intelligent individuals who they can build both personal and professional relationships with. This was also one of the original goals of universities – to bring together the  top minds of society and foster mutual growth through interesting discussion and group work. Unfortunately, universities aren’t actually very good at fostering these communities. Students are chosen almost entirely based on their grades from high school. However, the only thing a grade can indicate about a person is that they have some level of self-discipline and can follow instructions. It doesn’t say anything about their ability to think for themselves, or how creative they are, or about their character. So, in practice, it’s actually a lot more difficult to find genuine and interesting people who challenge you in university than you would think. The best  communities I have found in the past couple years have all been outside university, through things like hacker houses, fellowships, and online communities. So, if your sole objective or reason for going to university is to meet interesting people you might be better off not going, unless you go somewhere like Stanford. But even then, it can be difficult to find the right people. 

I’ve been discussing this topic under the assumption that if you’re reading this, you’re likely interested in entrepreneurship or tech. This makes up the majority of people who might be interested in dropping out, but there is also an argument to be made for people in more theory-based fields to consider dropping out, i.e., researchers. I am definitely not very qualified to speak on this, but I can say that there are real benefits to conducting research independently – mostly due to the fact that you can avoid the politics and bureaucracy of institutions. However, it’s definitely a lot more difficult to do research outside of an institution than it is to start a business outside of an institution. If this applies to you and you’re interested, I would highly recommend reading the essay by Christopher Olah that I’ve linked at the end of this article. He has some very helpful input on the topic and is a lot more qualified to talk about it.  His essay was a huge help in guiding me through thinking about the value of university. He also  discusses in a lot more detail the social implications of not going to university and how to deal with family expectations which I really appreciated.  

Now that I’ve discussed the main benefits and drawbacks of going to university, I’ll end this off  by talking about my approach to going through university based on my personal values. My  intention is to provide a sort of framework for anyone who may be conflicted about university to think about it in terms of what is best for them according to their own values. Here’s a quick  summary of my situation to provide context: I am currently in university full-time (though at a reduced course load of 3 courses) studying engineering while also working on a start-up on the  side, and my parents will help support me financially as long as I am still in school. My start-up  is a deep tech start-up and is generating zero revenue from sales, and probably won’t generate  revenue from sales for the next few years. However, we are getting some funding from grants/bootstrapping. For me, the main reasons I am still going to university is because I do not have a job with which I can support myself, I do not make enough from my start-up to support myself, I enjoy the freedom that comes with being a student, it gives me something to fall back on if my start-up doesn’t work out, I like having the university’s support, and because I enjoy  the social aspect of being able to go out and be stupid with people my age on the weekends if I feel like it. Another huge reason I’m still in university is because I have been able to do so many other things on the side. If I had to constantly be on campus with a full course load and had  nothing to do other than take my courses, I would not enjoy myself at all. Having side projects and extracurriculars is what keeps me going – those are the things that make me excited to  wake up every day. And to be honest, I feel quite lucky that a lot of my university experience  has been online because it has given me the opportunity to live in different places and environments other than my parents’ house and my university campus. I don’t enjoy staying in one place for too long. That’s something I have to work on, because it’s not a good thing for my  mental state to be controlled by my physical environment too much, but I think that’s  something that everyone experiences to some extent.  

My priorities for the foreseeable future are to keep having lots of diverse, interesting, and  challenging experiences, and to take an unconventional path. I have no interest in working for a corporate company and spending my life climbing the corporate ladder. I personally would much prefer to chart my own path to success, and although that may be a bit riskier it also has  the potential to lead to much greater success (and it’s more exciting). High risk = high potential  reward. I know achieving this will be impossible if I just stay in university for the next few years,  but I also do not have compelling enough reasons to dropout of university – at least, not yet.  So, my plan is to balance out my university career with a mix of other experiences: hacker houses/co-living, internships, travelling, starting companies, etc. This means it will take longer than usual for me to graduate, but by the time I do, I will have a ton of different experiences  and a much better idea of what I want to do for the rest of my life. I’ll also have a unique and diverse personal and professional network from all around the world which will be very helpful  if I do at some point end up applying for a more traditional job. I would much rather take that extra year or two to graduate because I’m already working on and doing things that fulfill and excite me throughout the process of getting my degree as opposed to essentially putting a  pause on my life for a couple years to just complete a bunch of courses and then emerge with a  piece of paper but not a clue about what I actually want to do with my life and with zero real world experiences or cool projects to show for. And while I’m experimenting and trying new things, if I create a successful start-up or find an amazing internship/job that I love and that I can comfortably support myself with and which allows me to make an impact on the issues I care about then that will be a good enough reason for me to dropout.  

I hope my thoughts have been helpful to you and have given you some things to think about.  Feel free to reach out to me if you want to discuss any of the above or anything else. I’m @pound_jesse on twitter and my DMs are open! You can also find me on LinkedIn

Huge shoutout to the following resources/people for helping me think through this, definitely  check them out if you found this interesting: 

Do I Need to Go to University? By Christopher Olah
The Ambition Paradox by Izzy Hazan
A Project of One’s Own by Paul Graham
Davide Radaelli
Luke Piette
Valkyrie Holmes

Jesse Pound
YELL Alumni 2018